The Chairman of the BMA's Junior Doctors Committee in NI, Dr Rajesh Rajendran, has today, 23 April 2008, written to the Chief Executives of Northern Ireland's five Trusts asking them to urgently address the serious issue of a shortage in the number of junior doctors working here. He has told them that this problem is ultimately affecting the quality of patient care in our local hospitals.
Dr Rajendran says: "Junior doctors are being pressured to work excessive hours to fill gaps in ward rotas, often without additional pay. In some cases there can be as many as four unfilled vacancies in certain specialties which substantially increases the workload of the remaining doctors. It appears that hospitals are frequently unable or unwilling to find locums to fill positions and pressure is then put on the remaining juniors to work extra shifts, sometimes single-handedly. We believe that, in some cases, the quality of patient care is being put at risk.
"This situation is not acceptable and yet many doctors believe that their careers would be on the line if they tried to resist providing the extra unpaid hours; consequently they are reluctant to speak out."
In his letter to the Trusts, the Northern Ireland Junior Doctors' Chairman also reminded them that the deadline for implementation of the European Working Time Directive is now fast approaching and this problem can only increase if not addressed now; from August 2009 the official working week will be further reduced from 56 to 48 hours.
A recent BMA poll of junior doctors in the UK showed that 29% are working on a rota with at least one vacancy. Of the respondents who reported vacancies, most said there were one or two doctors missing, but some reported four or five. The problem is a consequence of the inflexibility of the new medical training system introduced last year. The BMA says that gaps in hospital staffing rotas are now appearing whenever a junior doctor gets promoted to consultant, or leaves for other reasons.
The BMA has issued guidance to junior doctors advising them to be alert to changes in their rota patterns, and warning that the problem could result in increases in stress, bullying, and harassment.